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February 13, 2018

Preview: A team by team look at 2018 free agency

Jason Helstead/CFL.ca

TORONTO — With the market set to open at noon E.T. on Tuesday, fans across the CFL are buzzing over the possibilities of 2018 free agency.

Some of the league’s biggest names are off the board, but many remain as all nine teams can make an impact during one of the busiest and most exciting times on the league calendar.

Let’s look across the league going into Tuesday’s festivities.

 

BC LIONS

Chandler Fenner headlines an extensive list of pending free agent defensive backs in BC (Jimmy Jeong/CFL.ca)

New general manager Ed Hervey set out to solidify both sides of the line of scrimmage for his new club, and has done just that with key acquisitions on both sides. While speed demon Chris Williams was shipped out, Odell Willis and Gabriel Knapton were acquired to play defensive end and could form one of the most dangerous units in the league along with defensive tackle Mic’hael Brooks.

On the offensive line, the Lions have brought back three of their 2017 starters in Hunter Steward, Cody Husband and Antonio Johnson. It appears they’ll let former first round draft pick Kirby Fabien walk, but Head Coach Wally Buono has five potential starting linemen with David Foucault and Charles Vaillancourt also in the picture.

Also of note up front, the Lions have recently stocked up on American offensive linemen, which could mean both competition for Johnson as well as a potential ratio change up front if they’d like to start a second international. That could be Hervey’s approach to an O-line that struggled in 2017 following the departure of Jovan Olafioye to Montreal.


Extended: QB Travis Lulay, REC Emmanuel Arceneaux, REC Shaquille Johnson, DE Maxx Forde, DE David Menard, OT Antonio Johnson, C Cody Husband, OL Hunter Steward,  HB T.J. Lee, LS Mike Benson

Pending FA: DE Alex Bazzie, DE Craig Roh, DT Bryant Turner, LB Adrian Clarke, OG Jas Dhillon, OG Kirby Fabien, OL Andrew Jones, DB Chandler Fenner, DB Buddy Jackson, DB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Ronnie Yell, REC Nick Moore


While Nick Moore will likely join Williams as those departing at receiver, the Lions appear mostly set on the offensive side of the ball, especially after adding Brandon Rutley to the mix with Jeremiah Johnson and Chris Rainey at running back.

The real questions for the Lions come at WILL linebacker and defensive back. Adam Bighill’s old spot was filled admirably by Micah Awe, but the 2017 rookie has since departed to the National Football League. The Lions may take a close look at Adam Konar to fill that void; Konar is a pending free agent linebacker with a national passport who was originally drafted by Hervey in Edmonton — although he won’t come cheap.

In the secondary, the Lions could see several key holes, with starters Ronnie Yell, Chandler Fenner and Loucheiz Purifoy scheduled for free agency on Feb. 13. All three will be highly-coveted if not extended before noon on Tuesday.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. DB Chandler Fenner

2. CB Ronnie Yell

3. DB Loucheiz Purifoy

Top 3 Needs

1. WILL linebacker

2. Defensive back

3. Quarterback

EDMONTON ESKIMOS

Aaron Grymes leads a long list of pending free agents for GM Brock Sunderland’s club (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

Despite key losses on offence, don’t expect any key changes on that side of the ball throughout free agency. Instead, the focus for second-year general manager Brock Sunderland will come on the defensive side of the ball — particularly in the secondary.

The Esks’ receivers will look a lot different in 2017 following the departure of Brandon Zylstra (NFL) and Adarius Bowman (Winnipeg), but they’ll take a ‘next man up’ mentality with that group when they lean on veterans Vidal Hazelton and Kenny Stafford along with up-and-comers Bryant Mitchell and D’haquille Williams.

Reigning MOP Mike Reilly is still expected to head one of the CFL’s most explosive offences, especially with the return of dynamic two-way running back C.J. Gable, who signed an extension early in the off-season.


Extended: OL David Beard, OT Colin Kelly, S Neil King, RB Pascal Lochard, RB C.J. Gable, FB James Tuck, REC Derel Walker, REC Vidal Hazelton, LB Korey Jones, LB JC Sherritt, CB Johnny Adams, HB Forrest Hightower, K/P Sean Whyte

Pending FA:  HB Aaron Grymes, , CB Garry Peters, DT Euclid Cummings, FB Levi Steinhauer, FB John Delahunt, FB Alexandre Dupuis, OT Joel Figueroa, OG Simeon Rottier, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, LB Adam Konar, LB Doug Parrish, RB Kendial Lawrence, RB John White, RB Travon Van, K/P Hugh O’Neill, K/P Swayze Waters, REC Cory Watson, REC/RET Jamill Smith

Retired/Released: OG Danny Groulx, DE Phillip Hunt, DB Kenny Ladler, S Cauchy Muamba, REC Brandon Zylstra


The one question on offence comes at left tackle, where Joel Figueroa was one of the better tackles in the CFL last year, protecting Reilly’s blindside while paving the way for the league’s second-ranked rushing attack. While Figueroa’s return is likely a priority for the Eskimos, the 28-year-old out of Miami would be one of the top offensive linemen to hit the market.

Defensively, the Eskimos could answer a lot of questions by extending the contract of Aaron Grymes. Grymes is considered an elite halfback at the field side, and his departure would leave a gaping hole on Mike Benevides’ defence. The Eskimos also stand to lose WILL linebacker and Canadian Adam Konar.

Konar could be replaced by Korey Jones, who recently signed an extension, as the Eskimos reap the reward of breakout Canadian star Kwaku Boateng at defensive end. They also have linebacker Corey Greenwood, who missed all of 2017 with a season-ending injury. The Eskimos’ D-line is getting younger following the departures of Odell Willis (BC), Marcus Howard (released) and Phillip Hunt (also released).

Having JC Sherritt back at middle linebacker brings some continuity for the Esks, while Canadian starters Boateng, Arjen Colquhoun and Neil King benefit the ratio. Expect the Eskimos to fill Kenny Ladler’s old spot at SAM linebacker through competition at training camp, with speculation that Chris Edwards might be the man for the job.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. HB Aaron Grymes

2. LB Adam Konar

3. RB John White

Top 3 Needs

1. Halfback

2. Left tackle

3. Boundary corner

CALGARY STAMPEDERS

Jerome Messam’s departure leaves the Stamps with questions at running back (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Calgary’s youth movement has stirred up some of the off-season’s biggest headlines, with a number of veterans over 30 leaving the team either via trade, retirement or release. The Stampeders, as a result, will look much different than the team that has lost back to back Grey Cup Championships.

In the past, John Hufnagel has often taken a hands-off approach in the early days of free agency, passing on the big stars and gaudy contracts and relying on international scouting and savvy, under-the-radar pickups. That could change following the departures of Charleston Hughes (trade), Josh Bell (retirement) and Marquay McDaniel (released) among others, as the Stamps have freed up some cap space going into Feb. 13.

On the other hand, Calgary’s organizational depth and ability to mine young talent leaves the team with very few holes to fill. For instance, Ja’Gared Davis, James Vaughters and Cordarro Law form a strong pass-rushing trio even in Hughes’ absence, while Canadian sophomore Tunde Adeleke should be ready to step in and start at safety in Bell’s place. International DB Patrick Levels can also step in and help the secondary with the departure of Shaquille Richardson and possibly Tommie Campbell.


Extended: LS Pierre-Luc Caron, DE Ja’Gared Davis, REC Lemar Durant, REC Anthony Parker, REC DaVaris Daniels, REC Kamar Jorden, OG Brad Erdos, DB Ciante Evans, DB Brandon Smith, HB Jamar Wall, DT Derek Wiggan, RB William Langlais, RB Roy Finch, OT Randy Richards

Pending FA: DB Joe Burnett, CB Tommie Campbell, , REC Rory Kohlert, RB Jerome Messam, RB Anthony Woodson, DE Kashawn Fraser, LB Deron Mayo, LB Maleki Harris, DT Michael Klassen, OL Cameron Thorn

Released/Retired: S Josh Bell, FB Rob Cote, DB Shaquille Richardson


The same thing goes for the opposite side of the ball, where the development of Marken Michel and Reggie Begelton, along with a contract extension for DaVaris Daniels, allows the team to move on from Marquay McDaniel.

Perhaps the biggest question is at running back, where it appears Jerome Messam will not be back. He’s been the bell cow back the last couple of years, but has publicly bid farewell to the Red and White as he tries to find work elsewhere. With Roy Finch possibly NFL-bound and Terry Williams having just one career start to his name, the Stamps could pursue a running back in free agency.

In short, despite a flurry of off-season activity so far, the Stamps are in an envious position going into free agency — as we’ve become accustomed to with Hufnagel’s teams.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. CB Tommie Campbell

2. RB Jerome Messam

3. LB Maleki Harris

Top 3 Needs

1. Running back

2. Receiver

3. Linebacker

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

Ese Mrabure was a key cog in the middle of the Riders’ D-line throughout 2017 (Arthur Ward/CFL.ca)

It’s been a busy off-season already for the Riders, but you just know Chris Jones is cooking something up for the start of free agency on Tuesday.

Weeks after bringing back Canadian quarterback Brandon Bridge, Jones made one of the off-season’s biggest splashes by trading for Ticats quarterback Zach Collaros, who’s slated to start for the Riders in 2018. Then, after locking down his top offensive and defensive players in Duron Carter and Willie Jefferson, Jones acquired Charleston Hughes from the rival Stamps (via the Ticats).

Still, the Riders’ work is far from over. The departure of Kacy Rodgers opens up at hole at boundary corner, a significant void on the Riders’ defence opposite the veteran Jovon Johnson. Staying with the defence, the potential departure of pending free agents Eddie Steele and Ese Mrabure could also lead to problems. Both players have a Canadian passport and were a steady inside presence on the Riders’ D-line, generating pressure on the team’s three-man rush.


Extended: REC Devon Bailey, REC Duron Carter, QB Brandon Bridge, OT Thaddeus Coleman, DE Willie Jefferson, CB Jovon Johnson

Pending FA: OT Bruce Campbell, C Dan Clark, REC Nic Demski, DB Otha Foster, DE A.C. Leonard, DT Ese Mrabure, DT Eddie Steele, FB Spencer Moore, RB Greg Morris, LB Cameron Ontko, K Quinn Van Gylswyk

Retired/Released: RB Shakir Bell, REC Chris Getzlaf, LB Jeff Knox Jr., DT Zach Minter, CB Kacy Rodgers


Then there’s the O-line. While the club has brought back Thaddeus Coleman, that group has to be a priority for the Riders’ coach and general manager going into free agency. Extending centre and Regina native Dan Clark was big, but Bruce Campbell, who’s facing a two-game suspension anyway, is due to hit the market.

The Riders don’t have any gaping holes on either side of the ball, but look for Jones to target a big name or two at defensive back and on the O-line. History tells us that the Riders’ GM will be active in the coming days.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. DT Ese Mrabure

2. REC Nic Demski

3. DE A.C. Leonard

Top 3 Needs

1. Boundary corner

2. Left tackle

3. Defensive tackle

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS

It appears that Bombers halfback T.J. Heath will hit the market on Feb. 13 (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

Bombers general manager Kyle Walters is looking to put the finishing touches on a team ready to make the leap from perennial contender to Grey Cup Champion.

The Bombers have already brought back some key names, including 2017 Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Stanley Bryant, veteran receiver Weston Dressler, key defensive pieces Chris Randle, Drake Nevis and Maurice Leggett, and kicker/punter Justin Medlock. The question now is what will Walters do to put his team over the top?

Organizational depth has allowed the Bombers to overcome any potential departures this week, giving Walters some flexibility on the open market.

The emergence of Jackson Jeffcoat and Tristan Okpalaugo as a pass-rushing duo has made Jamaal Westerman expendable. In the secondary, the recent addition of Anthony Gaitor means T.J. Heath likely departs, as the Bombers look to improve a secondary notorious for forcing turnovers but also giving up yards.


Extended: OT Stanley Bryant, OL Manese Foketi, REC Weston Dressler, DB Maurice Leggett, HB Kevin Fogg, CB Chris Randle, DT Drake Nevis, LB Ian Wild, K/P Justin Medlock

Pending FA: OG Travis Bond, REC Clarence Denmark, REC Julian Feoli-Gudino, HB T.J. Heath, LB Sam Hurl, LB Kyle Knox, QB Dan LeFevour, FB Christophe Normand, DT Jake Thomas, DE Jamaal Westerman


On offence the Bombers could start Patrick Neufeld at guard, allowing Travis Bond to leave via free agency and the O-line to start three Canadians up front — a positive ratio change for Mike O’Shea’s club. Finally, bringing back Dressler and signing Adarius Bowman gives quarterback Matt Nichols an experienced group of recivers.

The biggest need for the Bombers might be at middle linebacker. And they might be in luck, with some big names becoming available via the open market, including Larry Dean, Bear Woods and Taylor Reed.

While Drake Nevis and 2017 first overall pick Faith Ekakitie are back at defensive tackle, losing pending free agent Jake Thomas could open up a hole in the middle of the D-line.

Perhaps Walters’ biggest moves have come before the start of free agency, with the additions of Bowman and Gaitor, but there could be more to come from the Blue and Gold. Either way, the Bombers are in a good position going into Feb. 13.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. HB T.J. Heath

2. OG Travis Bond

3. DE Jamaal Westerman

Top 3 Needs

1. Middle linebacker

2. Defensive tackle

3. Defensive back

HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

Having Jeremiah Masoli back brings continuity to a Ticats team that needs it in 2018 (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

The Ticats found a winning formula over the second half of 2017. Now, after bringing back key cogs like Jeremiah Masoli, Luke Tasker and Brandon Banks, they’re looking to carry forward the momentum of a 6-4 run to end the season.

The last-minute return of Tasker, who set a franchise record for receptions in 2017 in a career season, ensures stability for June Jones’ club, which will also return all five starting offensive linemen. Meanwhile, the team has settled its quarterback situation, with Zach Collaros shipped off to Regina and Vernon Adams Jr. acquired to be a backup.

Masoli is the man in the Hammer now, while the Ticats’ offence looks to be static going into 2018. The question in free agency surrounds the Ticats’ defence, which stands to lose a couple of pieces in Ted Laurent and Larry Dean.


Extended: REC Luke Tasker, REC Brandon Banks, DE Justin Capicciotti, DB Jonathan Langa, QB Jeremiah Masoli, CB Demond Washington, OT Tony Washington, LB Larry Dean, LB Nick Shortill, DT Ted Laurent

Pending FA: QB Everett Golson, , DT Michael Atkinson, DT Evan Gill, LB Mitchell Barnett, REC Jasper Collins, DB Dominique Ellis, FB Carl-Olivier Prime


The Ticats made a last-minute deal before 12 p.m. on Tuesday to bring back Ted Laurent, solidifying the middle of their defensive line.

Tuesday morning proved to be very busy for Eric Tillman and Kent Austin’s club, which also shored up the linebackers, bringing back Canadian and special-teamer Nick Shortill while adding middle linebacker Larry Dean, who led the team in tackles in 2017.

Last but not least is the Ticats’ secondary, which returns defensive starters Abdul Kanneh, Canadian safety Courtney Stephen, cornerback Demond Washington and 2017 rookie standout Richard Leonard. That unit has some potential but could use some depth, especially following the release of Emanuel Davis.

Overall, the Ticats have done a thorough job locking up their pending free agents going into Feb. 13.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. FB Carl-Olivier Prime

2. DT Michael Atkinson

3. REC Jasper Collins

 

Top 3 Needs

1. Defensive back

2. Offensive line depth

3. Defensive tackle

TORONTO ARGONAUTS

While the Argos have some holes, strength under centre makes the Argos a contender in ’18 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

There are a couple of ways to look at the Argos’ off-season so far.

On the one hand, the Argos’ quarterback situation is the envy of the CFL. They’ve ended up with one of the league’s best tandems under centre, with the veteran Ricky Ray backed up by the up-and-coming James Franklin. Quarterback is the key to success in the CFL and the Boatmen, who will return their starting offensive line from 2017 as well, are in good hands at that position.

With that being said, Argos general manager Jim Popp has a lot of work to do between now and training camp to fill out his roster. That starts with Tuesday’s opening of free agency.

The secondary will be a primary focus for the Double Blue in the coming days. Cassius Vaughn, Jermaine Gabriel, Matt Black and Johnny Sears have been extended just before the deadline, but Mitchell White, Rico Murray and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah are both set to hit free agency on Tuesday afternoon.

That unit was a weak spot on the defence in 2017, although a strong front-seven and the late-season addition of White masked some of the issues.


Extended: QB James Franklin, QB Ricky Ray, REC S.J. Green, REC Armanti Edwards, DT Cleyon Laing, DT Ken Bishop, DB Cassius Vaughn, S Matt Black, CB Johnny Sears, S Jermaine Gabriel

Pending FA: QB Cody Fajardo, REC Jeff Fuller, RB Brandon Whitaker, LB Bear Woods, LB Khalil Bass, DB Josh Mitchell, DB Rico Murray, CB Mitchell White, CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, DT Cameron Walker, DT Daryl Waud, K/P Lirim Hajrullahu

Retired/Released: REC DeVier Posey


If the Argos can’t bring back White, one of the CFL’s top cover corners, look for Popp to spend some money in the secondary, especially with some big names poised to become available. The Argos are especially in need of a veteran halfback, making T.J. Heath a possible target.

While the Boatmen are set to return their entire defensive line after signing Cleyon Laing to an extension, the loss of Bear Woods would leave a hole in the middle of their defence. Woods could still re-sign, but the veteran would be coveted on the open market after a decent first season in Toronto.

On offence, the Argos’ unknowns are at receiver and running back. Contract extensions for S.J. Green and Armanti Edwards give the Argos a solid duo, but the departure of DeVier Posey (NFL) leaves the team without its top speed threat. Posey could be replaced by Brian Tyms, who has signed an extension, but look for Popp to try and add some help at the position.

At running back, pending free agents John White and/or Jerome Messam could be targets following the news surrounding James Wilder Jr. The Argos’ breakout star of 2017 might sit out the coming season.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. CB Mitchell White

2. LB Bear Woods

3. CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah

Top 3 Needs

1. Defensive back

2. Running back

3. MIKE linebacker

OTTAWA REDBLACKS

The return of Diontae Spencer means Ottawa’s offence returns mostly intact this season (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

One of the CFL’s top offences in 2017 will return almost entirely intact this season, already giving Marcel Desjardins and his Ottawa REDBLACKS a leg up on the rest of the competition.

Alex Mateas and Nolan MacMillan have signed extensions up front, as have playmakers Brad Sinopoli, Diontae Spencer and William Powell. Meanwhile, the REDBLACKS wasted no time bringing back Trevor Harris, signing their quarterback to a contract extension early in the off-season.

On defence it’s a different story. Noel Thorpe was brought in as the team’s defensive coordinator, likely prompting some change for a unit that ranked sixth in the CFL in yards allowed (384.8 yards per game) and dead-last in yards per play (6.8).


Extended: QB Trevor Harris, FB Brendan Gillanders, RB Mossis Madu, RB William Powell, REC Brad Sinopoli, REC Diontae Spencer, OL Alex Mateas, OG Nolan MacMillan, DB Jean-Philippe Bolduc, DB Jonathan Rose

Pending FA: REC Juron Criner, REC Jake Harty, OL Matthew Albright, OL Jake Silas, DB Dan West, DB Adam Berger, DB Jerrell Gavins, DB Keelan Johnson, LB Taylor Reed, LB Greg Jones, LB Serderius Bryant, LB Tanner Doll, DT Zack Evans, DE Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, K/P Brett Maher

Released/Retired: DB Nick Taylor


The team just extended corner Jonathan Rose, but last year’s starters Zack Evans, Taylor Reed, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Jerrell Gavins are all up for new contracts, and are now just hours away from going to the open market.

Rick Campbell was pleased with the development of his young secondary last season, with Corey Tindal and Sherrod Baltimore emerging as regular starters. While Ottawa could target a veteran corner like Mitchell White, the focus should be on the front-seven.

Last year the REDBLACKS recorded only 31 sacks, something Thorpe is expected to change this season. He could use some help with a dynamic pass-rusher and a strong interior lineman to complement Jonathan Newsome, not to mention some additional talent at the linebacker position.

The REDBLACKS may not be too busy in free agency, but some changes to the defence are coming.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. LB Taylor Reed

2. DT Zack Evans

3. DB Jerrell Gavins

Top 3 Needs

1. Defensive tackle

2. Defensive end

3. MIKE linebacker

MONTREAL ALOUETTES

The Als hope that strength on the O-line can help them bounce back in 2018 (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

While Alouettes general manager Kavis Reed says his team will take a cautious approach to free agency, expect the Als to be among the busier teams when the market opens at noon ET on Tuesday.

The rebuilding club could use some help across the board as it looks to rebound from a three-win season, starting with the secondary. After allowing nearly 300 passing yards per game, the Als have lost Jonathon Mincy and could also be without pending free agent Brandon Stewart, meaning there should be some new faces in 2018.

With some big names ready to hit the open market, look for the Als to target a couple of veterans like T.J. Heath and Ronnie Yell to bring some much-needed experience to their back end — should either of those players make it to the market.


Extended: RB Tyrell Sutton, FB Martin Bedard, OG Philip Blake, OL Matt Vonk, OT Xavier Fulton, DB Michael Carter, DB Mikael Charland, DB Chris Ackie, CB Tevaughn Campbell, K/P Boris Bede

Pending FA: QB Jacory Harris, QB Drew Willy, REC Stephen Adekolu, REC S.J. Haidara, , OT Brian Simmons, OG Christopher Greaves, DT Don Oramasionwu, DE Ivan McLennan, LB Reggie Northrup, CB Brandon Stewart, S Dominique Termansen

Retired/Released: OT Vincent Brown, OT Jeremy Lewis, REC Alex Carroll, REC Alex Pierzchalski, CB Jonathon Mincy, FB Nathan O’Halloran


While the Als have Kyries Hebert and Chip Cox at linebacker, the defensive line should be a priority for Reed in free agency. The Als could use a strong presence inside to complement Jabar Westerman, while the departure of defensive end Gabriel Knapton, traded to BC, opens up a spot opposite to John Bowman.

The offence may need a little less attention. Tyrell Sutton is a lock at running back after signing an extension, while the acquisition of Chris Williams supplements returning receivers B.J. Cunningham and Ernest Jackson. On the O-line, the last-minute signing of Philip Blake gives the Als a solid interior O-line, leaving questions at the tackle position opposite Jovan Olafioye.

The Als’ offence has some intriguing pieces, but the biggest question may come under centre. Is the team comfortable with Josh Freeman going into camp as the starter, with unproven pivots Matt Shiltz and Antonio Pipkin behind him? Could the team bring back Drew Willy as a security blanket in case things go wrong?

While the Als look to continue getting younger, free agency should help them fill some holes going into the 2018 season.

Top 3 Pending FA

1. QB Drew Willy

2. OT Brian Simmons

3. DT Don Oramasionwu

Top 3 Needs

1. Halfback

2. Offensive tackle

3. Defensive end